NEW YORK - The road trip from hell started with a little slice of heaven last night.
The Orioles found themselves locked in another fierce contest with the New York Yankees - much like the three games that led to heartbreaking defeats last week at Camden Yards - but this time they were the ones dishing out the disappointment.
Pat Hentgen pitched deep into the eighth inning and the bullpen recorded four of the toughest outs of the season. Buddy Groom replaced struggling closer Jorge Julio with two outs and the bases loaded in the ninth, and the Orioles escaped with a 4-3 victory before 44,121 at Yankee Stadium.
New York was riding a seven-game winning streak, but Deivi Cruz broke a 3-3 tie with a run-scoring double in the sixth inning off Yankees starter David Wells (12-4), and the Orioles held on to extend their own winning streak to three games.
With two wins over Tampa Bay and this one against the Yankees, the Orioles continued to distance themselves from a confidence-dashing eight-game losing streak that included New York's four-game sweep last weekend in Baltimore.
Facing a 10-game trip to New York, Oakland and Seattle - three probable travel destinations for the American League playoffs - the Orioles didn't look daunted.
"We played [the Yankees] tough in Baltimore," Orioles reliever B.J. Ryan said. "Even though we lost, I think that kind of helped us here. It was like we were more prepared. We made the plays and we made the pitches when we needed to."
Hentgen (5-6) allowed three runs on six hits in 7 2/3 innings and did his best work late in the game, holding New York scoreless after the third.
His pitch count was at 100 entering the eighth, but after he retired Alfonso Soriano and Nick Johnson, Derek Jeter reached on a little tapper that bounced off Hentgen's glove for an error.
It was a tough play, as Hentgen had to make a couple quick steps to his right to field the ball, but after it got by him, he crouched to the ground in disappointment, holding his head.
With Jason Giambi up next, and the Orioles clinging to their one-run lead, manager Mike Hargrove pulled Hentgen and summoned Ryan. Giambi came in batting .198 against left-handers this season, but Ryan walked him with three straight balls after getting ahead in the count 1-2.
"He's the kind of guy," Ryan said of Giambi, "where even though you're ahead in the count, he can still do a lot of damage."
So can Bernie Williams, but he came up next and grounded to second base, ending the inning.
But the Orioles weren't out of the woods yet - not even close.
With closer Julio up and warm, Hargrove let Ryan start the ninth inning, and the left-handed-hitting Hideki Matsui flied out to left field for the first out.
Hargrove finally turned to Julio, who had allowed nine runs (six earned) in his previous two outings.
The Yankees put the Orioles in an immediate bind. Jorge Posada and Aaron Boone singled before Julio got Karim Garcia (11 homers this season, five against the Orioles) to fly out to left for the second out.
Down to its final out, New York had leadoff man Alfonso Soriano coming to the plate. Soriano had singled and scored on Nick Johnson's home run in the first inning before crushing his 27th homer in the third.
The Orioles had come back against Wells, with No. 9 hitter Brook Fordyce leading the way. Fordyce went 3-for-4 with a run-scoring single in the second inning and a bases-empty homer in the fifth.
So here was Julio, trying to get Soriano to preserve his 30th save in 37 opportunities. But it wasn't to be. Julio threw four pitches to Soriano, two of them 100 mph, and all of them balls.
That loaded the bases, bringing the large crowd to a fever pitch.
"I really struggled with whether to take [Julio] out of that game or not because you just don't want to ruin a kid's confidence," Hargrove said. "But I felt like it was the right thing to do. He's a big boy, and he'll be fine."
It wasn't so much Hargrove's decision to pull Julio that made the moment so interesting. It was the decision to bring in Groom, who has been an Achilles' heel for the Orioles all season.
"At the time, we needed someone who could throw strikes," Hargrove said. "He's had a tough season, but his last few outings have been good. You can kind of see Buddy getting the confidence back. You see a different look in his eye."
Yankees manager Joe Torre sent Ruben Sierra in to pinch hit, and it was like pulling a Band-Aid. One pitch, game over. Sierra hit a fly ball to right, and Jay Gibbons put it away for the out.
"I really never lost [confidence]," said Groom, who earned his first save since Aug. 21, 2002. "There were times when I was like, 'Here we go again.' But I always let those positive thoughts in."
Opponent: New York Yankees
Site: Yankee Stadium, New York
Time: 4:05 p.m.
TV/Radio: Ch. 13/WBAL (1090 AM)
Starters: Orioles' Rodrigo Lopez (5-8, 5.75) vs. Yankees' Mike Mussina (14-6, 3.02)